Just when we thought that it might take some time for football to wrest attention back from England's rugby world conquerors, the Football Association have pulled off a major recapturing of the headlines. It wasn't easy. Even Arsenal's 5-1 Champions' League win at Internazionale, which was one of the finest victories on European soil by an English side, fought a losing battle with the homecoming heroes for media space on Wednesday.
But the FA struck back on Thursday to restore the status quo. Not through any accomplishment by their football team on the field of play - don't be silly - but for their treasured ability to cast a fascinating confusion over the nation. Just when we were awaiting news of the rewards that Clive Woodward would be receiving for guiding the England rugby squad to the greatest prize of all, the FA decided to offer their coach, Sven Goran Eriksson, a rise and a longer contract.
Perhaps they didn't want his nose put out or for him to feel neglected just because he hasn't won a World Cup. Since the offered salary of £3.5m a year is over 20 times more than Woodward is getting, it should help the Swede cope with being so spectacularly upstaged by his rugby counterpart.
It also proves that the speculation that the FA were considering recruiting Woodward to work a similar miracle with the football team was plucked from fantasyland. But surely such a far-fetched story did not require such extravagant rebuttal.
There are many who see darker motives behind the FA's move, feel that there's method in their madness, which makes a change from there being madness in their methods. It is perceived as a cunning ploy to force Eriksson into a commitment he might shy away from making. Students of the situation believe that once Eriksson has taken his team to Portugal next year for the finals of Euro 2004 he will consider that he has fulfilled his duty. If England win it, of course, he would happily see out his existing contract to the 2006 World Cup.
In the more likely event of his men falling short of glory, he would feel just-ified in seeking a return to club level, and few would be surprised if it turned out to be with Chelsea. He could cite his recent public dissatisfaction with the FA's handling of the Rio Ferdinand and Alan Smith disciplinary situation as reasons for his disenchantment.
If these are his intentions then the new contract offer, which would take him up to 2008, will flush him out. If he turns it down, what are we to think? The FA would doubtless interpret it as advance notice that they need to start thinking about seeking a replacement. If he signs it, and still wants to go next year, the FA will collect an extra big lump of compensation from whichever club want him. There's no time limit on his acceptance, but he will be quizzed by the media about his intentions on every public appearance - starting with the Euro 2004 draw in Lisbon today.
Eriksson was said to be angry that the FA had announced the offer, but his agent rejected those reports. He was merely "disappointed," he said. It would not be a difficult mistake to make. The difference between anger and disappointment registering on Eriksson's face would be impossible to recognise for any but the trained eye.
If, indeed, this is an example of a new cuteness at the FA, where Mark Palios is settling in, after a few hiccups, as chief executive, should we be encouraged that better days are ahead? Much depends on one's opinion of Eriksson as an international manager. Palios accompanied his announcement of theoffer with the words: "Sven is England's most successful coach since the legendary Sir Alf Ramsey." I'm not sure that Sir Bobby Robson, among others, would be happy with that assessment.
Statistically, Eriksson has an excellent competitive record, but the impression his reign gives is not so clear-cut. England scraped through their qualification group, which was not as tough a group as Wales or Scotland faced, and the subsequent toppling of Turkey by Latvia is hardly a quality form-line.
We must not forget that Woodward was plagued by doubters, inside and outside the game, in his first three or four years, so patience and faith is an important virtue in managerial careers. But what if Eriksson turns out to be more schtumer than messiah when it comes to the big championships? The new contract could rebound and the FA would be stuck for years with a highly paid liability.
I know not what ambitions burn beneath Sven Goran's calm surface. He is expected to dawdle over the offer for as long as he can. I'd be inclined to sign it tomorrow. Running the England team has never been a cushy billet, as the aforementioned Alf Ramsey would have testified. But to be guaranteed five years of top money come what may spreads a thick layer of asbestos over the hot seat. He will be only 60 then, and still employable at either international or club level. The FA might even get better. While the disciplinary backlog continues to be a farce, a vast improvement will not be too difficult to achieve. Neither will it be difficult to bring the players to heel with some firmer handling.
The appointment of the popular Trevor Brooking as director of football development is sensible. The former West Ham man gets on well with Eriksson, and the game does need considerable attention to bring all its elements into line.
The departure of marketing and communication director Paul Barber has had a mixed reception, but they have been putting up over-weight in the vague-job department. The appointment of Colin Gibson, a Fleet Street heavy, in charge of PR is another promising move; the first time they have had a genuine poacher turned gamekeeper.
It will be interesting to see how the cat- and-mouse game with Eriksson works out, but these are intriguing signs that some creative thought is stirring in this beleaguered body.
The Celtic joke is on England
Sensitive English souls living in those countries to the north and west of England have been complaining of unashamed churlishness in the reporting of their rugby team's finest hour.
Wales on Sunday tempted readers with a front page they declared a "Gloat-free Zone" and the large headline: "This Paper Is Free From Page After Page Of Smug English Back-slapping". I understand that they have been accused of racism, and that some of their advertisers who are English-based firms were not overjoyed.
The theme was repeated in Scotland, where the Sunday Herald's front page carried the word "Warning" in large type followed by "Some Of You May Find The Following Pages Extremely Disturbing... The Rest Of You Will Be Interested To Learn That England Won The Rugby World Cup". Scotland on Sunday's front page blared "Jonny Clinches World Cup for England... Get Over It". Inside, they complained about England hijacking the British national anthem.
None of it is to be taken seriously. It's all part of the deep emotional thrust of being a committed rugby fan. Besides, as I said last week, England's success would have been all the sweeter for the thought of how much it pissed off their enemies.Reuse content